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JIS News

The Office of the Public Defender is reporting that for the period 2000 to 2005, some 4,433 cases were closed, out of a total of 4,985 cases received. Serious about ensuring transparency in the public sector, the Office of the Public Defender is proud of its 89 per cent efficiency rate as it seeks recourse for citizens who have been unjustly treated by a government Ministry or agency.
Of note, in 2001, of the 707 new cases received by the Office of the Public Defender, 694 or 98 per cent were cleared.
“The Office of the Public Defender acts as a mirror for the government. It investigates and remedies complaints of injustice or hardship resulting from administrative actions on the part of any government agency or department, at no direct cost to complainants,” Public Defender, Howard Hamilton, Q.C., tells JIS News.
He notes that these complaints can be made by any member of the public, even a foreign national, as long as the incident being complained about happened here.
Whilst Mr. Hamilton emphasises that the Public Defender does not represent persons charged with criminal offences, he notes that his office has been experiencing a steady increase in cases since 2000, when the name was changed from Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman to the Office of the Public Defender.
The Public Defender explains, however, that case closure does not always mean a monetary award or letter of apology given to the complainant. “Eight out of ten times, closure means satisfaction for the complainant. Sometimes though, there are cases that reach a standstill and they have to be closed and re-opened later,” he explains.
Giving a breakdown of the number of cases dealt with during the review period, Mr. Hamilton outlines that in 2000, the Office received 693 new cases, while 707 were received in 2001; 717 in 2002; 1,018 in 2003; 878 in 2004, and 972 in 2005.
“In general more women file cases with my office. This difference is however, not vast. The ratio would be about six to four. There are, however, more men filing cases against the Supreme Court, since these are often lock-up scenarios,” says Mr. Hamilton.
In 2003, the Supreme Court was the government agency against which most cases were brought, with matters of grievance being the re-issue of title used for bail bond and the non-issuance of a copy of trial transcript. These cases totalled 108, of which 105 were filed by males. And of the total number of cases, 102 were closed.
For that year also, the Public Defender’s office filed 78 cases against the National Works Agency (NWA) and the Ministry of Transport and Works. The main complaints were damage to property, due to road disrepair, and the non-payment for land acquired. Of that figure, 64 cases were closed that year.
In 2003 also, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security received the third most filed complaints.
Sixty-six complaints were concerned with pension, such as invalidity pension, widow’s pension and the pension book. In that year also, both civilians and members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force filed some 52 complaints against that Ministry. Popular grievances included dismissals, abuses by police, persons detained without being charged, outstanding salaries and injuries resulting from police bullets.
Mr. Hamilton explains that not all cases relating to perceived wrongdoing on the part of the police force could be addressed by his office. “In the case of the JCF, the Public Defender only comes in after it has been proven that the police was wrong in its actions.
This, therefore, happens after the JCF’s Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI) and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) have investigated and handed down judgement, then my office comes in to negotiate compensation,” he notes.
He also explains that even then, the Public Defender does not interfere if there is a possibility that the wrong done by the hands of a member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) was a criminal act.
“If a member of the JCF accidentally injures or kills someone in the line of duty, the Public Defender can negotiate compensation after internal investigations have been done. However, if it is the case that the person was not accidentally shot, but one of intent, this will be out of the Public Defender’s ambit,” explains Mr. Hamilton.
He also points out that there are occasions when complainants have no case, because of some wrongdoing on their part or their own misunderstandings of the government department.
He also tells JIS News that complainants sometimes come to his office with grievances directed toward private sector organizations. “Even then, we don’t nonchalantly send them away, we advise them how to proceed and where to go,” he says.
The Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, which was established in 1978, was replaced by the Office of the Public Defender on April 16, 2000.
“The change came about to increase our jurisdiction to cover constitutional violation, not just administrative errors,” Mr. Hamilton concluded.